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Champion Among The Heathen
An American Missionary Caught in South African Conflict 140 Years Ago
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Missionaries’ wives were customarily appointed assistant missionaries, and all six men were married when they departed for Africa. Champion married Susanna Lamed of Webster, Massachusetts, shortly before leaving. While Susanna shared her husband’s faith, she did not share his blindness to the dangers that were to close in on them in Zululand. For her, Africa was to become a terrifying ordeal. But as the great adventure was about to begin, her thoughts may well have been similar to those of another young wife in the party, Jane Wilson. Jane, a sweet-faced girl from Richmond who was the bride of Dr. Alexander Wilson and who was never to return from Africa, wrote a friend that she would be happy if she could rescue even “one of the females of Africa” from “ignorance, superstition, degradation, and wretchedness.” But she also wondered what to wear. She decided that silk dresses would be superfluous but flannel gowns highly useful. And she had been told that a simple gingham or white frock would do for a missionary on any occasion-"especially in poor Africa.”
On Sunday evening, November 23,1834, the six Africa-bound couples gathered before an overflow crowd in the Park '' Street Church in Boston for commissioning as missionaries and for final instructions. Their task, said the Reverend Ruf us Anderson, a secretary of the board, was not to produce “transient effects” but to “rear up Christian communities.” For their own welfare, he warned them to “learn the approved methods of preserving health and life” in Africa, but he assured them they would find compensations for the hazards. “The whole African continent is wonderfully constructed,” he said, “and no part of it is more wildly romantic than the southern.” On December 3 the missionaries sailed for Cape Town on the bark Burlington . Champion, who took along a goat so they could have milk for their tea during the voyage, had to get up from a sickbed to make the sailing.
The Burlington anchored at Table Bay on February 6, 1835. But because of delays caused by transportation difficulties after their arrival at the Cape and by the need for the reconnaissance trip, it was not until September of 1836 that George and Susanna Champion pitched their white tent in the district of Zululand that Dingaan had selected for the missionaries on the exploratory visit earlier in the year. By then the Champions had a small son, also named George, who had been born during the long period spent marking time in the Cape Colony.
By then, too, the original contingent of missionaries had scattered. At Cape Town, following the board’s instructions, three couples had immediately split off and started a nine-hundred-mile trek to the north, where they were to minister to tribesmen the board had designated as the “Interior Zoolahs.” Champion was not to learn how this group fared for more than two years.
The other missionaries had been assigned to the “Maritime Zoolahs,” the tribesmen living under Dingaan in the northern half of the present South African province of Natal. Besides the Champions, this group now comprised Dr. Newton Adams and his wife and the Reverend Aldin Grout, whose wife had died of tuberculosis in the Cape Colony. The Adamses were at Port Natal, running a sort of base station for the Zululand mission on the Umlazi River. Aldin Grout was with the Champions when they took up residence in Dingaan’s country.
In some ways they could not have come into a more alien world. The Zulus were a fearsome people. Until they began their rise under Dingaan’s predecessor, Shaka, two decades earlier, warfare in the region had been a relatively harmless exercise in which foes lofted spears at each other from a distance. Using a new weapon—the short stabbing spear—the Zulus rushed their enemies and engaged in bloody closequarter combat. By such tactics they rapidly evolved from a minor local clan into a nation occupying an area twice the size of New Jersey and dominating a far wider territory through terror. They destroyed some tribes, assimilated the remnants of others, and drove still others to distant refuges. Just as the Zulus instilled fear in others, their own kings instilled fear in them and thereby ruled with an iron grip. A word from Dingaan could lead to a subject’s instant death for an offense as trivial as belching in the royal presence-or for no offense at all.
Champion nevertheless was unworried. “This is an evening of joy,” he wrote on the night of September 26,1836, the first day at the site of the mission station. The missionaries named the station “Ginani,” from the Zulu for “I am with thee,” and began settling in. Champion intended to spend the rest of his life in Zululand.